tv [untitled] October 24, 2011 11:00pm-11:30pm PDT
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and that late afternoon sadness rolls in like the luminous california fog crossing over the hills. and some part of me is convinced that i might never have really felt joy. and yet, there's a mythical quality to the garlic mustard, the afternoon, the angle of light that fills me with a peculiar heart-breaking beauty. and i wonder, as i often do, if things will ever be simple. the train sounds down by the river, the cloud passes over the sun, and what could be memories feel like deja vu... like they happened under water a long time ago.
i had this poetry teacher once... he said that any good poem has to have a balance of elements that are beautiful and elements that are dark and acrid, and difficult. and he called it the lilies and urine principle. in the darkest and most abject of places, there is still beauty, and the idea that beauty is not something that arises from everything being perfect and symmetrical and orderly and straight. beauty is the thing that manages to grow in the cracks in the sidewalk, and manages to struggle out between the buildings and between the barbed wire.
my earliest sense of being aware of a world much bigger than my six-year-old reality came from books. and i lived and breathed and ate those books. and i was acutely sensitive to the themes of loss and change and suffering. i remember when i was six years old writing a poem about the golden years are passing by in the winds that whistle. i had this real sense that nothing lasts, and a real sadness about that. a real sense of wanting, wanting everything to be golden and stay golden, and it didn't work like that. and i was also very sensitive to the land around me, and i grew up in a region that was rapidly being developed,
and where what used to be horse fields and meadows were being turned into strip malls and condominiums, and corporate headquarters. just watching the rape of this land, feeling like there were forces at play that were so much bigger than anything i could control. at a very young age, i started to really lose interest in a lot of the strappings of popular culture. all these messages about the kind of person i was supposed to be. the world around me was way more interesting than a television show. and what everybody talked about on the bus to school was movies and celebrities, and i just didn't care. i wanted to talk about love and loss and life, and the meaning of human existence, and spirit, and unity, and freedom... and that was just not what 12 year olds were talking about.
i grew up in a really dysfunctional, neglectful, and pretty abusive, alcoholic family, and i was not supposed to talk to anyone about what happened in my house. the kids at school wanted to talk about "grease," and what i was thinking about was the horrendous way i was being treated by my mother, and how desperately i hoped for some kind of free life. i was pretty malnourished as a kid 'cause i was allowed to eat whatever i wanted and no one took care of me, and so i didn't grow, and so i looked like i was eight and i lost all my friends. and then i would go home and nobody would talk to me, and my mom would be like falling apart on the floor, passing out after drinking a bottle of wine... yelling and screaming, and my entire reality was dismantling itself.
i wanted to get out of my body and out of my life so badly, and i just started to have this feeling that probably one day i was really going to go crazy. i went to a prestigious private university and at the time, i was taking a class on the origin of life in the universe and got totally convinced that if i could teach every high school student in america that their bodies were made out of molecules that were born in the supernova's of stars 15 billion years ago, then we would all understand that we are all the same and there would be no injustice and no inequality and we would stop treating each other so badly. and so, i had gone through a period of just total expansion and incredible energy, and so much insight, but insight at a level where i couldn't really connect with other people.
your brain takes off into this level of cosmic and cerebral connections, but your heart isn't working quite right. you can connect 50,000 ideas, but you can't listen to your friend talk about her relationship. and so, i went through a period, which they would say is mania. all mental energy, and connections and divine expanses of space and time and no grounding on the earth. and then i crashed, really badly, and a lot of it for me was mixed up with drugs and alcohol. i slipped into such a state of total and utter depression and despair that i didn't know what day it was,
i didn't shower, i didn't change my clothes. i didn't really eat, i stopped going to school, stopped doing work, stopped going outside, stopped talking to people. every time i'd try to watch the television, i was convinced the world was ending, and i would run out of the room screaming, and shake, and hide in the corner. when i started to interface with the mental health profession and be given diagnoses and medications to contain that fire inside of me, it both felt like a huge relief and like it had the power to extinguish that fire, which was terrifying. no one ever told me before i started taking zyprexa or lithium, that if i stopped it, i would have severe withdrawal and psychotic symptoms. but it actually turns out that a lot of these medications,
there's this fundamental impulse either toward suppressing our traumas by medicating the symptoms of them away, or "facing down our traumas," by delving straight into the teeth of whatever our childhood beasts are. there's not a lot of focus on what is in the middle, what does it mean to acknowledge the way that the past has been a formative thing in our lives, without reliving the past over and over. mental illness does not exist in a vacuum; saying that it is nothing but a biological brain disorder lets everybody off the hook... and makes it this situation where it's just the individual
versus his or her inevitable biological madness. i think that a lot of people who get labeled as mentally ill in our society have really broken hearts. a lot of the behaviors and the attitudes that i had before i got locked up in a psych ward and given a diagnosis, had a lot more to do with trying to escape from my sadness, than i think they necessarily had to do with a mental illness. if i was determined to live my life in a city and to work a really intensive steady job in an office, i think i would have to take medication to do that. but i don't think that fact means that i have a disease. it means that it would take a pharmaceutical substance to
override my instincts, to make me capable of fitting into a system that was not designed for someone with a spirit like mine. i'm just really sensitive and my moods shift in ways that i don't really keep a rhythm that fits with the clock of capitalist society. i'm learning more to listen to my own rhythms, particularly as they pertain to things like seasons, and light. and it's unreasonable to think that you should be able to be performing the same every day... in a world that's constantly changing. there would be a lot less "mental illness" in our society if people were given spaces to work through emotions like anger and grief, instead of denying them
and suppressing them, if we had a language of compassion. if you can listen to people when they're going through crisis, not tell them what to do, but actually listen. it's not necessarily the moment right then to untangle "why" and to put a label on it and to fix it. it's more a space to hold someone so that they can go through the process and come out the other side. we need to stop saying, "you are crazy, stop being crazy." we need to stop putting all the focus in treatment on how can we make you stop being the person you are? how can we stop telling you that you are wrong if you experience these things? and how can we instead, help you to learn how to
handle your sensitivities? that you might make the transition from having these sensitivities overwhelming you, to having these sensitivities be giving you information you can use. we have been given a sensitivity, a temperament, a disposition, which can grant us access to a lot of beautiful things, and can also be extremely painful and destructive. it's our responsibility as individuals to try to learn how to take care of our dangerous gift. i don't feel like there's this foreign evil thing operating in me and my goal is to eliminate it, and tame it into submission.
i think something that happens for a lot of us who get labeled as bipolar, is we have these really kaleidoscopic tendencies in our brains, where we can't filter out as much of the world as a lot of people do. and it's like we have 500 antennas out in every direction all at once and we're bringing in tons and tons of information on all these different channels. the dead flower over there, and the shadow over here, and this person over there, and the love letter over there, and the map over here, and the apocalypse over there, and walmart down there, and the ocean, and children, and... and in my mind, they're all connected, and they're not separable. when you open up your radio transmitters and you are taking in all this information about the world, it ain't all good.
when i open up in that way, i don't just see beauty and light, and god and grass, i see suffering and bodies rotting in the streets and injustice and a lot of pain and terror and fear also comes in. because the dark side of humanity is very, very, very real and we don't want to think about that. there's moments when people have glimpses of what is luminous and transcendent, and that's fantastic, but no one stays there. god knows, there have been more times in my life than i could ever count when i have been like "please take this fucking thing away from me. i don't want it! it is too painful. it is too much pain and suffering. you can have it back. just let me close down and be like a normal person walking around the world. i don't want access to these frequencies. can i please just shut the dial off?"
so much of my creative output in the world is driven by trying to reconcile those patterns and those swings. it's one of those ironies where definitely when i'm at my most stable, i don't tend to create very much. and when i'm swinging back and forth and moving between different states of consciousness, it's more painful and there's more friction, and i create a lot more, and it drives me crazy, you know, 'cause part of me just wishes that this whole dangerous gift thing didn't have to be like that. by going into the fire directly, we become more and more pure.
we develop more and more of our personal integrity. traditionally, in certain indigenous cultures, a shaman was someone who had access to the spirit world, and was able to help heal people. but that access was not necessarily just granted as like a divine gift that fell out of the sky. most shamans had to go through a period of initiation, when, to some degree, their system broke down. and in some cultures, it seemed really literally like shamans have visions of their bones being disassembled and boiled. and sometimes it seemed people who tend, as children, to be singled out to become shamans are the ones who were more sensitive, maybe more sickly, often had epileptic tendencies, but there was something
in those beings that people could recognize that they could have access to those other worlds. and going through the darkness was part of finding your strength. one of the most distressing things about the disease model of mental illness in our culture, to have any periods of darkness or suffering is wrong, it means you're off the track.
it means you need to be fixed, and i think there is a lot we can learn from spiritual paradigms that see that someone who is truly trying to be awake in their life will go through suffering, because life is sad and difficult and hard. and as you get closer to knowing your heart, you find a lot of pain there and it doesn't mean you're messing up. it just means that you're really committed. this person fell out of the sky with a really similar life story to mine. i met sascha, because i had responded to a version of his life story that he had written and got published. and it was about his experiences with "madness," and wanting to live an authentic, adventurous life, and not crash and burn over and over, because of the fragile fire in his brain.
i ended up sending him my whole life story and he showed me all these e-mails he had been getting from people all over the country. we were so curious about, what would happen if all these people learned how to use their wings, so we didn't crash all the time? what would happen if we could somehow harness these powers and this vision, and make use of it in a sustainable way? how do they personally navigate the space between brilliance and madness? and so, he and i decided that there had to be a place for these people to read each other's stories and to know that they existed. and so, we thought we would start up a website. it became the icarus project and it had way more than just a few stories, it became an interactive forum for people to talk to each other, and just grew and mushroomed into this whole network of people all over the country.
icarus was an ancient greek boy, mythologically, who was given the gift of wings made out of wax and feathers, so that he could escape from a labyrinth. and despite multiple warnings, he overestimated his powers and flew too close to the sun, and his wings melted and he crashed into the ocean and drowned. and we saw this as a really powerful archetype for the way that many people who get labeled with mental illness in our society, have this dangerous gift of heightened sensitivity and vision, and creativity, and fragility. we had some vague idea that a key piece of recovering mental health had to do with building community. i was a kid who was a real survivor and thought i didn't need anybody else's help to get by. and letting go of that notion, letting go of that identity,
falls down and you're not flying on the magic carpet anymore. it takes a lot of faith to stay on the path of believing that harnessing it is in some way possible. it takes a lot of faith and perseverance to go through this path of loss and reclamation, and loss and reclamation, and loss and reclamation, and not give up. it seemed like the pieces of my life were completely irreconcilable. there were so many things i wanted to hold on to, and so many pieces of my existence that i wanted to give. there's a piece of art i made called, "training for the surface of the moon," it's a series of collages. i wanted to take every fragment of anything that was beautiful in my life and not forget it.
and the act of sewing them together was a very literal way of trying to make things meet that didn't meet; the beauty in them and the pain in them. something about the possibility for wholeness and the reality of destruction, and that these coexist at the same time. and this feeling that there is something more transcendent, something that smacks of grace. and most of my work has a real tension in it between forms and images that remind me of the grace of existence, whether it's seeds that are sprouting or roots that are going into the ground, or light, or circles, or sacred geometry. but things that, for me, involve small glimpses of hope and regeneration.
there are stages in the formation of our identity where it's extremely empowering to own the part of us that society marginalizes, and say there's nothing wrong with this part. and then i think there are also times when we can move beyond those definitions. i'm less and less identified as a mad person, or a liberated mad person. and i'm identified more as a person who is traumatized by her life experience, just like so many other people. i don't want to think that i carry around this thing, this madness...